Topic Selection Reform: What Should Be Changed, and How to Get Involved
Article by Steven Adler

As I’ve written previously, the NFL is in the process of reforming its topic selection procedure, and there is opportunity for the community to provide feedback. I have spoken with Joe Vaughan, who is chairing the committee, and he has requested that people who wish to influence the process post on this thread, and that he will follow along with the conversation.

Because of this opportunity, I’m hoping that we can have an open conversation about what should be changed in the topic selection procedure. Clearly people must have some gripes, because all three topics this year generated a lot of hostility and negativity on Facebook (although that’s always true to some extent). Given those gripes, it makes sense to air them in a productive fashion so that the process might actually change.

I will begin by just saying two brief things:

First, I don’t think that schools should have to pay to register with the NFL to have a vote in the topic selection process. I understand the NFL’s need to have records of eligible voters so that its elections are fair, but I believe that could be accomplished just as easily by filling out all the requisite registration forms except for the payment.

It doesn’t seem right to me that a small, poorly-funded program might have to choose between sending some students to tournaments, or having a vote in what topic is debated. It also doesn’t seem right to me that a lone-wolf debater who wishes to vote might have to foot his school’s entire fee just for that right. But this problem affects large programs, too: the school for which I coach, Lexington, has chosen to withdraw from the NFL because Nationals coincides with its graduation, and therefore the large cost (because the program is so large) is not worth it. Consequently, Lexington does not have a say in topic selection matters, despite having quite a few debaters.

Second, I think that the topic selection committee should work to enhance transparency in its procedures, both in publishing a list of submitted topics and in publishing the brief write-ups that people submit along with their topics. (I also think that the committee should require people to submit write-ups with topics so that it doesn’t just get a list of 50 topics with no context or background information, but that is an aside.)

My reasons for wanting transparency have nothing to do with mistrusting the committee or anything of that sort. I appreciate all the time and effort they put into choosing topics, particularly that Lexy Green did publish a list of submitted topics during the last discussion, and I don’t mean to disregard their contributions. But at the same time, I feel that more information on the topics should be available to those who wish to take that information into account when voting. For instance, I think a debater should be able to read up on the summary write-ups of the topics, if they so choose, before casting a vote for which they want to debate for two months. I understand that not every debater or coach will take up this opportunity, but I don’t think there’s any harm in allowing it to those who wish to use it.

With that said, I hope that other people will add their feedback as well so that we can develop more of a community consensus. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, but I’m hopeful that collectively we can improve topic selection so that people are happier with it moving forward.